Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena’s first nine months saw real progress. His electoral coalition, anchored around the United National Party (UNP) and strengthened by much of his – and the Rajapaksa family’s – Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to approve the nineteenth constitutional amendment in April 2015. That fulfilled an electoral pledge to reduce the presidency’s enormous powers and restore the independence of oversight commissions for the police, judiciary and human rights.
The government ended censorship and intimidation of the media and partly scaled back the heavy military presence in Tamil-majority areas in the north and east. The military was persuaded to return, reluctantly, some of the huge swathes of land it had seized there in and after the war.
The presidential election was followed in August 2015 by the narrow victory in parliamentary elections of a UNP-led coalition over a grouping led by former President Rajapaksa and including most of Sirisena’s own SLFP. That allowed Sirisena to convince the fractured SLFP to form an unprecedented national unity government with its often bitter UNP rival, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The grand coalition affirmed Sirisena’s and the UNP’s ambitious agenda to revive the economy, investigate alleged corruption under the previous regime, promote reconciliation and, most importantly, draft a new constitution in parliament. The main aims of constitutional change were to further reduce presidential powers, adopt a new electoral system and expand the powers devolved to provinces so as to address longstanding Tamil demands for autonomy in the north and east.
Keen to reduce international pressure over human rights, the new government co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution in September 2015 committing it to a package of transitional justice measures to address the legacy of the 30-year war with the separatist Tamil Tigers, including the horrific final months in 2009, when tens of thousands were killed.
Momentum slowed by mid-2016, however, and now seems stalled. Failing to deliver on good governance promises, particularly regarding corruption, and with few signs of the promised economic revival, the government is losing support from its main constituencies: Tamils, Muslims and liberal Sinhalese. This makes it vulnerable to the resurgent populist, majoritarian opposition politics led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Divisions inside and outside the government have led to a focus on manoeuvres for political survival rather than pursuit of reforms and maintenance of unity across party and ethnic lines. It is increasingly clear that the “unity” government was principally a creation of the UNP and some of those close to Sirisena that a meaningful part of the SLFP was persuaded to support in exchange for portfolios.
The split in the SLFP weakened Rajapaksa’s hold over Sinhala voters and was the key to Sirisena’s election but is now the cause of political paralysis. Sirisena is consumed with managing factional rivalries and policy divergences. Having done little to reshape the party around a less exclusionary, nationalist vision, he and his SLFP ministers are increasingly concerned with securing its traditional nationalist core, flirting with the Sinhala chauvinism against which they had campaigned.
Ex-President Rajapaksa, whose charisma and civil war success have kept him popular with many Sinhalese, retains the loyalty of most of the SLFP, particularly local party activists, most of whom have never accepted the unity government. His attempt to regain control of the party benefits from the dissatisfaction of SLFP ministers who joined the government but now chafe at what they feel is UNP arrogance and the prime minister’s unilateral policymaking.
Looming large with them are local elections, originally due in 2015 but repeatedly postponed for fear the Sirisena-led SLFP might trail not only the UNP, but also Rajapaksa supporters, who operate in parliament as the “joint opposition” and are expected to form a new party. Three provincial council polls, with the same risk for Sirisena and his SLFP wing, are also scheduled in 2017. The SLFP is a resentful junior coalition partner, whose ministers see uniting their own party – thus making peace with Rajapaksa – as the best way to regain control of government.
The Rajapaksa clan would need to overcome significant hurdles to return to power before 2020, the earliest that parliamentary elections can be called. A more likely scenario is deepening coalition dysfunction, as the SLFP bides its time and prepares to regroup for both parliamentary and presidential elections that year, with Sirisena at growing risk of losing the SLFP presidential nomination to Mahinda’s brother, ex-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Meanwhile, the Rajapaksas are exciting their base, attacking constitutional reform and transitional justice as capitulations to anti-Sinhala and foreign forces. Government ministers and others have said the family funds militant Buddhist monks and others to destabilise the ruling coalition, supported by pro-Rajapaksa elements in the military. Many civil servants are hedging their bets, concerned that the government is weak and fearful of retribution, should Mahinda or one of his brothers return to power. ( Excerpts from ICG report: Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere)
<blockquote>The views expressed are of ICG analysts